Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 29 : A Time for Silence or Speaking
Eccles 3:7 a time to be silent and a time to speak
I was at a barbecue, attended by about forty people I think, and I stood there at one point and looked around at the chattering that was going on. In some cases it was one to one, in other cases groups of three, four or five. One of the thing human beings do is talk – and talk a lot. Talking is the way we express relationship. It may be the very tentative opening words with a stranger, but even there we are seeing is some form of basic relationship can be formed, even for a few minutes. It may be the catching up on the news with someone you haven’t seen for a long time; you are re-establishing the relationship you have, distant though it often may be. With others it may be just the ordinary, every-day type of chatter, but talking goes on wherever there are relationships between human beings. We talk because we know things and we want others to know them as well. We talk because we don’t know things and we want to find out.
Today’s verse has an almost ominous feel to it. There are times when it is better to keep your mouth shut and times when you need to speak out. I think standing before God is often a time when it is best to keep quiet. I know that at the times in life when I have been most aware of the holy presence of God, I just wanted to keep quiet. Speaking words would have spoilt the sense of beauty and wonder that was there. When Isaiah saw the Lord his first response was an indication of the awareness of the sinfulness of his mouth: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isa 6:5). I always like Ezekiel’s wisdom in saying the least possible when the Lord asked him if the valley of dry bones could live: “He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” (Ezek 37:3). Smart move, Ezekiel.
Solomon understood this as well: “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint.” (Prov 17:27). The more you know the more you realise how much you don’t know. Elsewhere he said, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19). Be careful, our words may either reveal what we’re like on the inside or they may lead us into sin by speaking wrongly. James understood this: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” (Jas 1:19)
One of the dangers of being a Christian is that we so often forget these warnings and feel we have all the answers and so we impose those answers on all we come across. The trouble is that they may not be ready yet to receive them. Jesus taught, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6) I understand that to mean, don’t pour out wonderful things of God to those who mock and deride and just haven’t got open hearts. If someone walked up to you and said, “I’m a communist,” or “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,” we would immediately think, “Why are they saying that? They must want to impose on me their viewpoint of life.” Yet that is how many Christians act and speak. Yes, we do have the most wonderful news the world can receive, but are they ready to receive it.
If you’re an evangelist you’ll just scatter the seed of the Gospel anyway and your grace can cope with the rejection of many. For most of us, with our next door neighbour or the person we work with, our call is first to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds,” (Mt 5:16) so that they will ask you about why you are like you are: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet 3:15) but even then, “But do this with gentleness and respect,” so you keep the door open for further conversation if they are not ready to go far now. Peter was obviously very much aware of this, perhaps because the Gospels so often record him opening his mouth rashly. Is this why he speaks to wives: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1 Pet 3:1,2). Somebody once said something like, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if you have to.”
For most of us, speaking out the Gospel is not so much a case of ‘when’ but ‘how’. We are always to be bearers of the truth, always to be witnesses to Jesus (Acts 1:8) but it is knowing how to say it. A brash and arrogant speaking the truth simply creates hostility. That’s why Peter spoke of doing it with gentleness and respect. Perhaps this is another of those times when we need to shoot up an instant prayer, “Lord, please give me wisdom, show me what to say” (Jas 1:5). Jesus taught, “do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Lk 12:11,12). There is so much more that could be said about when to speak and when to remain silent, but we will have to rest with this for now.